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AUGUSTA, GA. — Of all the accolades Carl Clifford Wilson received during his service in the Navy, it was forgetting his hat that earned the Augusta native his highest honor.
If Wilson had not forgotten his “lid,” hundreds of Americans might have died aboard the USS Conyngham during World War II when a Japanese plane targeted the ship.
Wilson died in 1993 at age 70, but his legacy never will, especially with his grandson Don Ray, who has a 6-inch piece of metal that one of Wilson’s crew member’s salvaged from the plane’s wreckage.
Ray recalls the incident that made his grandfather a hero happening in 1942.
According to historical records, the Conyngham’s escort duties were interrupted that year to screen carriers and later fight in the Battle of Midway from June 4-6.
The destroyer returned to escort duties until Oct. 16, 1942, when it was sent from Pearl Harbor to screen carriers in the Southwest Pacific and defend ships in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
During one of the missions, Wilson left his hat on deck, something that had become a running joke among the crew. The fire control-man third class started to go below deck with other shipmates to clean up and eat when he remembered he didn’t have his hat.
That’s when it happened.
“As he grabs his hat, he looks up and sees one lone Japanese plane coming in,” Ray said. “He turns around and shoots it down at the last second, sending the aircraft crashing into the side of the ship.”
In a letter from Vice Adm. Daniel Edward Barbey, the commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, Wilson was recognized for “distinguishing himself through excellent service” in the Southwest Pacific.
“In spite of great personal danger, Wilson maintained a rapid and extremely accurate fire, scoring many hits on an enemy plane,” Barbey wrote in his letter. “For his conduct, he is commended and authorized to wear the Commendation Ribbon.”
The letter hangs in the hallway of Ray’s Harlem home, along with Wilson’s commendation ribbon and the metal from the plane he shot down.
Ray inherited the mementos from his grandmother, who was married to his grandfather for nearly 40 years and passed away shortly after Wilson died.
The Japanese plane artifact was given to Wilson in the early 1980s at a Conyngham reunion.
“One of the crew members slid my grandfather a piece of steel at the dinner table,” Ray said. “My grandfather said, ‘What’s this?’ His friend replied, ‘That’s a piece of the Japanese plane that you saved all of us with, and I have been waiting all this time to give it to you.’ “
An Augusta native, Wilson joined the Navy in 1941 and after his service worked at Savannah River Site for more than 25 years.
Ray said the two of them would fish, make homemade ice cream and shell butter beans in the family’s garden. He described his grandfather as a “homebody” who enjoyed football and golf.
Ray said that hanging next to Wilson’s memorabilia is a frame containing his grandfather’s favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, which states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“The service it took to do that, it’s very prideful,” Ray said of his father’s honor. “Not everyone has a story like that.”